“I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I in you, you will be fruitful.“—John 15:5
Jesus calls himself the vine and his disciples branches that bear fruit. The Church has always heard a reference to Communion in this saying, especially to the cup we bless.
From ancient times, the cup has stood for the lifeblood of Jesus circulating through the church’s vine and branches like nourishing sap, uniting Teacher and disciples in one common life, generative and strong, a holy communion.
But the metaphor of vine and branches is not just about communion with Jesus and each other. It’s also about communion with nature. To belong to the One who took our flesh, and to belong to all our human neighbors, is also to belong to the earth. Earth and heaven are not opposites, and the more entwined we are in each other, the healthier and more fruitful we become.
It’s not for nothing that every Christian ritual of inclusion, acceptance, pardon, peace, and nourishment requires us to touch the things of earth and to let them touch us. In Baptism, it’s water and, in some parts of the Church, salt, oil, and beeswax. For healing, anointing oil. In Communion, it’s wheat and grape. For worship, flame and flower. Through these earthy things the grace of loving Pesence materializes. By these earthy things we learn how precious and loved we are, in body as well as soul.
We are not the only stewards of God’s creation. The earth cares for us as much as we care for the earth. It’s an irreplaceable gift to our whole selves, mediating divine healing and peace to every part. Without these gifts, we would never know the sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch of the invisble God.
We owe earth care not just because it’s in our self-interest, although it surely is, and so we must; but also because she is the beloved medium of God’s self-showing, the indispensable partner of God’s adoring attention to us, the one who reveals the Holy One to our senses, in beauty, in nourishment, in joy.
When We Eat Bread, We Eat the Soil and Sun
Words: Mary Luti
Alternate tunes: CLIFF TOWN, CHILSWELL
When we eat bread, we eat the soil and sun,
the quiet winter rest, the surge of spring;
we eat the summer’s heat, the cloud and rain,
and every breeze that makes the meadows sing.
When we drink wine, we drink the soil and sun,
the tendril’s climbing curl, the pruning’s grief;
we drink the blue, the dusky purple, and the pale,
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I tell you, the bread of God is that which comes from heaven and gives life to the world… Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.’”—John 6:32-34, 51 (NRSV)
Early Christians thought Jesus was talking about Holy Communion here. Of course, at this point Jesus didn’t know what Communion is—he hadn’t given us that gift yet. But our forebears heard that meaning in Jesus’ words anyway.
They’d come to experience Christ’s Body as truly life-giving and even spoke of Communion as medicine for what ails us. They believed that partaking of the Bread shored up and mended our frail human condition. To approach Communion was to be diagnosed, admitted, treated, and released to a new regimen of health, body, mind, and soul.
Regularly partaking also vaccinated you against the estrangement that destroys human solidarity. Being in communion with the Healer and all our convalescing siblings in the church staved off deadly infections like a divided heart, moral indifference, and an evasive life.
Communion was also a foretaste of the permanent health of the life to come. Exactly what such a fully wholesome life would be like, no one knew, but it had to be at least something like Communion— the beloved as one in the Beloved, feasting.
But the most important thing was how you knew the medicine was taking. The proof lay in service. The church’s body was healing when it found itself caring about and tending the bodies of others. It could claim health only when it was putting its own body on the line.
Which is why examining the life we lead in our bodies has traditionally preceded Communion. It’s a wellness check, and if it shows we’ve been indifferent or hostile to our neighbors’ bodies, we know we need to come to the table again. And again, to eat the Bread that heals us go and do otherwise.
“It is written, ‘God gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said, ‘I am the bread…’”—John 6:31-35
During a class on the sacraments, a student, Carol, told this story: After a snowstorm, only a few folks who lived within trudging distance made it to church, including Carol and her daughter, Melanie, who was four. The service was simple, a hymn, scripture, Communion.
Melanie had never received Communion, but she was there, and no one was stopping her, so she held out her hand. With everybody else in the reverent circle, she ate. Then she broke the hush:
“Mommy!” she cried, “This is the most deliciousbread!”
Adults overthink everything. Especially Communion. We divide into theological camps over it. We exclude people deemed morally, denominationally, doctrinally unfit. We bar little children until they’re capable of abstraction. We understand everything about bread except that you’re meant to eat it.
But Melanie tasted what we forget—before all else, communion is food, delectable Presence, Jesus’ sweet surrendered self. It is the most delicious Bread.
You don’t need to be grown-up or confirmed to know that something tastes good; to savor a grace of exceptional flavor; to sense that this is a mercy and no ordinary thing; to be surprised at it, grateful; to cry out, delighted. You need only be there, extending your hand. You need only eat.
And so, by the way, if communion isn’t delicious in your church, if it’s gummy Wonder white or sawdust gluten-free, why not replace it with something less disagreeable? It’s hard to believe you’re at heaven’s feast when the meal tastes like cardboard and glue. When choosing an edible sign that Christ is truly with us, always go for flavor. Do not disappoint Melanie.
And don’t disappoint the world that needs us, who eat the bread, to be more than a thin starchy presence for the hunger of bodies and souls. That needs us, who drink the cup, to spill out onto its thirst a love more generous than a thimble cup. That needs us, who have known the meal’s delight, to be delicious.
Every country has a story about its beginnings that gives you a sense of that nation’s ideals. You know some of these stories. There was a reference to one in our first reading. The Exodus story—the one in which God acted powerfully to free the Israelites from Egypt and fashioned them into a people in the wilderness. By telling and re-telling this story, Jews learn that to be a Jew is to be a people saved from oppression, and therefore a people that must be engaged in repairing a world broken by tyranny.
The Roman Empire had a founding myth too—a story about twins fathered by Mars, the war god, who left them to die in the woods. A she-wolf found them and took them in. But when they grew up, they became bitter rivals. Remus was murdered by Romulus, who’d become powerful through warfare. Eventually the great city he established ruled the known world. Romans who heard this story learned to pride themselves on military might. They learned that to be a Roman meant never to shrink from the destruction of your rivals.
America has a founding story too. Nancy Taylor is the pastor of Old South Church in Boston. That’s the church of the patriots that gave us the original Boston Tea Party. When she was installed in 2005, Nancy’s sermon began with a re-telling of America’s origins. It’s probably apocryphal, but most origin stories, are, so… here’s what she said:
As you know, the Pilgrims … were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.
I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. l learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.
Now, there’s a lot of truth in this idea of an exceptional America. America’s idealsarea unique gift to the world. Even our enemies acknowledge that here, against the odds, we have shaped a civilization that is freer, more enterprising, and more socially and politically dynamic than any the world has ever known.But our story also has sorrowful downsides—slavery and racism, manifest destiny, jingoistic nationalism, economic selfishness, disastrous military adventures, periodic spasms of fear and hatred of the outsider, especially the immigrant.
Our foundational self-understanding is dicey in another way too. From the start most Americans have believed that our preeminent position in the world is divinely ordained. America is on an errand for God. Many Christians in America sincerely believe that an ardent patriotism is basic not just to citizenship, but also to Christian faith.
I did a survey of church websites around the 4thof July a few years ago. Turns out that many churches begin their services with a parade of American flags. There are sermons in support of the wars and great reverence expressed for ‘the ultimate sacrifice.’ One congregation heard a sermon entitled, ‘God, the Greatest American.’ I imagine that many people left worship more persuaded than ever that to pledge allegiance to America is to pledge allegiance to Jesus, and to stand up for Jesus is to stand up for our country. The founding story of America has given rise to a vision of America not only as an exceptional nation, but also as a Christian nation. We gather around a cross-draped in the Stars and Stripes.
Jesus, meanwhile, pledged allegiance only to God. At least that’s the way I read the gospels. He taught that loyalty to God did not mean standing apart from others. It meant standing in solidarity with them. It didn’t put you above other people, it put you alongside them, especially in their pain. And that’s why for Jesus, allegiance to God demanded that he align himself daringly with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the stranger, and the weak.
The gospels show me a savior who was singularly unconcerned with singularity. He was concerned with commonality—with shaping a beloved community. He didn’t care much for privilege; he didn’t cling to his own. And he knew all too well the brutality of a great empire that regarded itself as the best and most virtuous nation the world had ever known. The banner of Rome demanded Jesus’ allegiance, but he refused to bend his knee to its pride and violence. That may have cost him his life.
Now, I love my country, and I love the Fourth of July. I intend to celebrate today with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and fifty hot dogs, one for each State! Well, maybe thirteen for the original colonies. I will contemplate and give thanks for the America that was and is; but I also plan to contemplate and pray for the country we might have been, and the country we still could be.
One thing I’m going to ponder is what our country might have been like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, not the exceptionalism story. What we would be like as citizens if we’d all been taught from our childhoods that we became a people when we were running low on life’s necessities? That we are simply a nation of people with ordinary and urgent needs, like all other peoples of the world. A people with a mighty thirst, hoping to find the means to quench it.
If the beer run had been our founding story, instead of the one that says we are different from everyone else and better than all others, maybe we would have grown up more alert to our kinship with the majority of the peoples on this planet who, among other things, have no reliable water to drink.
Maybe if we’d seen ourselves all along as having arisen from an effort to satisfy the same basic needs everyone else has; if we had understood our unity with all who thirst—for dignity, for justice, for well-being and happiness—maybe we would always have acted wisely and decisively to ensure that basic commodities and the freedom that comes from mutual respect are always abundantly available to all. Maybe instead of our tendency to place ourselves apart and above, we would habitually have stood shoulder to shoulder with the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy, as our scripture readings today emphatically command us to do.
I don’t know which patriotic songs you’ll be singing in honor of our freedoms today, but between the hot dog course and the watermelon, I plan to belt out every last annoying verse of ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’ And I plan to down a few.
Now, beer-drinking is not something I can or should encourage you to do, especially if you’re not 21 or can’t drink safely. But I do hope you will have a Fourth of July filled with a clear-eyed and chastened love of country, and with ardent prayers for our leaders, as the Bible commands.
And I hope you will also take a moment to pray for the profound conversion of all Americans—of you and me—to a resolute path of justice, solidarity, and peace in a world where everyone else loves their country too.
And in this spirit I freely say—and mean it with all my heart—‘God bless America.’